21 April 2007

Tom Wolfe: On Hedge Funds

Tom Wolfe's novel, "Bonfire of the Vanities" (1987), chronicles the troubles of a "Master of the Universe." That's the self-describing phrase Wolfe puts into the head of his protagonist in that novel, Sherman McCoy, a successful bond salesman. McCoy takes a wrong turn one day, ends up in a traffic accident, and becomes what Wolfe says is every urban prosecutor's dream, the Great White Defendant.

That was then. This is now. Bond salesmen are still around, and of course many are still quite successful. But they aren't the ones that Wolfe targets as examples of hubris twenty years on.

Last year, Conde Nast announced plans to add a new business/financial glossy to its line up of periodicals (Conde Nast publishes Vogue, Architectural Digest, Glamour, GQ, etc.). CN went out of its way to lure talented and well-known writers to the new magazine, which it dubbed Portfolio. Indeed, Kurt Eichenwald left the New York Times for Portfolio, as I've mentioned before on this blog.

CN didn't ask me to write for Portfolio but, heck, they've never yet asked me to pose for GQ either. I've survived.

Their really big "get," though, was Tom Wolfe. And now that the first issue is out, there he is. The Wolfe story isn't Bonfire. To begin with, it's non-fiction. But this, too, one has to qualify immediately. It's non-fiction peppered with the use of novelistic techniques, the sort of thing he did for test pilots and the early astronauts in The Right Stuff.

Who is the new protagonist? Who has the right (or self-righteous) stuff in the financial world as Wolfe sees it? who has the hubris of a Sherman McCoy? Hedge fund managers do.

I find this fact intriguing, because when I began covering hedge funds regularly nobody in the literary world of Wolfe's stature would write about them. They were still happily obscure. Obviously, they are obscure no more. I think it's good that folks like yours truly, toiling in the day-to-day vinyard of hedge fund news, have gradually dragged these important pieces of the financial world out into the sunlight so that they've come to the attention of the lions of the forest, the Tom Wolfes. You're welcome, Tom.

My opinion of the story? Frankly, it stinks. Judge for yourself though.


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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.